Our darkest moments

Updated 21 Jun 2017


SEVENTY-ONE deaths in 27 years. According to data collected by Al Jazeera, that is the estimated number of people killed in violence connected to blasphemy allegations. It includes the 12-year-old who lost his life in the town of Hub on Thursday, after a mob resorted to aerial firing in their hunt for a citizen, from a minority community, accused of blasphemy. It includes Mashal Khan, beaten, stomped, and shot to death by some of his own peers at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan last month.

These are just some of the recent events where lives were lost and the media’s gaze stuck around for more than a few days at a stretch. Between them lie many other incidents from which those accused still languish in prison, or where injuries were caused, people were forced to relocate, and only their homes, and not their bodies, were burnt down. The increasing frequency of such acts can be gauged by the fact that literally days after Mashal Khan’s lynching, a mob assembled in Chitral baying for the blood of another accused.

There are facets common to these incidents: Greed for property, money, or social status trigger accusations, while the deeply held religious beliefs of ordinary people take centre stage to deliver ‘justice’.

The state does not have a solution to vigilantism related to blasphemy accusations.

Material motivations are often couched in the language of purity, and status-seeking mullahs seek to further their own credentials by taking up these causes with great public fanfare. In the recent incident in Hub, reports say members of two religious groups travelled all the way from Karachi to participate in the organisation of a lynch mob.

This shameful, endless tryst with blasphemy-related allegations is happening under the nurturing shadow of the state and the political elite. A short while ago, member of the prime minister’s family and PML-N MNA Capt Safdar paid homage to Mumtaz Qadri’s ‘bravery’ as he went about extolling the virtues of vigilantism against alleged blasphemers. When a group of five bloggers were abducted by the state apparatus, the only charge that emerged against them was of anti-religious and anti-establishment provocation.

As researcher Ammar Rashid points out, the architecture of blasphemy laws has clearly helped fan these disastrous flames. In the 59 years before 1986 — when Article 295-C introduced the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy — there were a mere seven accusations of blasphemy and two examples of vigilante killings; in the 28 years after the introduction of 295-C, blasphemy accusations increased to 1,335 and direct vigilante murders to 65 (a further six are indirectly related).

It is clear that the state and large swathes of the political elite is complicit in bringing us to a point where the easiest way to settle a score with an individual is to accuse them of blasphemy. This, however, is not the darkest aspect of our present moment.

Over the past few years, an emerging narrative tells us that the country has turned a corner in its fight against terrorism. Constituent of this narrative is the idea that the military has taken a clear position on militancy, and is now seeking to re-establish its monopoly over violence.

There is some truth buried amid all the hyperbole of success and consolidation. The state is clear about aspects of organised militancy, and the falling frequency of attacks suggests its proposed solution has worked to some extent.

However, the state does not have a solution to blasphemy-related vigilantism. This is because it has both legally — through the constitution and the penal code — and rhetorically — through frequent speeches against blasphemous content - elevated blasphemy as one of the highest offences in the land. Unlike anti-state terrorism, which is an identifiable political project, blasphemy violence is now a social project. It does not seek to alter the state any more, it seeks to alter or set societal limits. It seeks to tell you, me, and everyone around us what it means to be a good Muslim and what it entails to be a good, pliant member of a minority community. It is a unifying agenda that allows political leaders and religious clerics of all stripes to get together and cash in on the easily provoked sentiments of a majority Muslim population.

With each subsequent case, it becomes clear that unlike the TTP (that we can at least partially identify geographically and organizationally) we have no ways of identifying participants of the next lynch mob. There is enough ‘latent radicalism’ in all corners of our country — from Chitral to Hub via Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad — that a simple accusation, a little door-to-door work, and a loudspeaker is enough to gather a bloodthirsty crowd.

The absence of a clear or straightforward solution to this violent epidemic is what constitutes our darkest moment. The most banal answers — strengthen local policing, strengthen the court system — ignores the embedded nature of the problem. The same law enforcement institutions are working under a penal code that promises death for blasphemy.

There is very little that a small coterie of earnest citizens can do, other than express their outrage over frequent acts of savagery. And there are few allies even in this task: Most diluted, half-baked condemnations of vigilante murders are swiftly accompanied with a ‘but he/she shouldn’t have blasphemed either’. Any discussion over the problematic laws is now taken as blasphemy itself. Any attempt to add nuance is rejected by a perpetually hurt and sensitive majority. For a country that frequently gives reasons for pessimism, I find blasphemy-related violence to be the most crippling of them all.

The writer is a freelance columnist.


Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2017